Thursday, 24 October 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: 3l: Moscow (II)

world-map moscow


And once again we have an early posting on TOTV and once again it’s due to Friday night engagements. This week we’re still in Moscow but just to show that old travelogues can be relevant a decade on, I thought it interesting and sad to hear on the news this morning that Man City’s captain Yahya Toure was subjected to racial abusive in their game in Moscow last night. As my travelogue last week demonstrated, the problem is not a new one in those parts and sadly, has not been dealt with, all the more worrying considering that Moscow is hosting games in the 2018 World Cup.

But as this week’s travelogue will show, there is much more to Moscow than an unhealthy dollop of intolerance and whilst last night signified a lack of culture, what you may read now shows the distinct opposite.

But before we go on with the show, I thought I’d share with you all a nice little present I was given today, the first ever UTM-inspired tableware, (all the more apt considering my home city). Thanks a lot guys, it was really touching!

UTM plate

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

european russia 1


27th - 31st August, 2002 – Moscow, Russia

For those of you thinking that I am perhaps a bit of a cultural ignoramus, ('He can't appreciate sculptures, “Stalin is a Stokie”, really! And he actually liked those monstrosities erected by Luzhkov-Tsereteli! Really!'), I'm sorry, but it gets worse. Much worse. I once described one of Christendom's greatest churches, the magnificent Aga Sofia in Istanbul as 'a bit crap from the outside' (it is), and the world-famous Parthenon in Athens as 'a ruined Birmingham Town Hall' (which it is as well). No culture vulture am I, I'm afraid, and alas I shall now sink to even lower depths.

I don't get art.

Yep, that's right, I don't get it. Of course I like some painting, but they're generally the ones where you can:-

a). Tell what they are of and,

b). Are of places that I've visited, (“Been there mate, and right nice it was too, though a bit crap from the outside... like Birmingham Town Hall.”).

No, it doesn't do it for me, especially the stuff where you can't tell what's going on, (or maybe you can... if you're on drugs, must try that one day[1]). And yet the Sibling is an artist, (at least he says so, I doubt it since I can tell what his pictures are supposed to be of), and my gran dabbles in the old water-colours as well, plus I have a GCSE Grade C qualification in 'Art: Drawing and Painting', which shows that if one puts their mind to it, even a GCSE in French might be possible... one day.

But if all that's the case, then why were the Lowlander and I now walking through the trendy glass doors of Moscow's famous Tretyakov Gallery? Culturally inspired by the Mouse? No, we'd not met her yet, (remember, this bit's not chronological, but instead as organised as I am). Feeling an overwhelming urge to ogle oils. Err, maybe? Or just because the guidebook, (which we still trusted implicitly, not having reached the Luzhkov-Tserenteli bit yet), described it as ‘nothing short of spectacular’[2]. Besides, like with dog soup, Turkish Baths and weird Central Asian states ending in 'Stan', if you don't know what something's about, then my advice is to try it!

And by the time that we exited those same trendy glass doors several hours later, we'd done just that. And what's more, we'd rather enjoyed it. Ok, so it wasn't all good. The countless portraits of kings, queens and generals didn't do it for me, (didn't know them you see, although a couple of the princesses were quite fit), nor did the modern stuff in the end gallery that depicted... well, I'm not quite sure what they depicted, that's why they were crap. But a lot of the other stuff, well that was nice. Big battle scenes, (and who can resist a big battle, eh?), stories from the Bible, (been there, read the book and sampled the wine), and a room full of paintings of Uzbekistan in Tsarist times, (not only been there, but only just come back!). Ok, so the Greek legends didn't really get my juices flowing really, (not exactly received a classical education you know, darling, and well, the place has changed rather a lot in three thousand years, more hotels than Homer these days), but overall, well call me Cultureman now!

One of the paintings of Central Asia particularly interested me. It was entitled 'Uzbek Woman in Tashkent’, it was by Vasily Vereshchagin (1873) and it depicted a bundle of cloth, not even an eye exposed to the world, shuffling along a street in the Silk Road town. Those who say that the revolution changed nothing for the better in Turkestan are wrong. We were amazed by the fact that very few of the Uzbekis girls even wear headscarves these days. Such attire as the lady in the painting was wearing, impractical for work, would be unthinkable and although the women of Central Asia are still a long way from achieving equality, the Russians helped them make great steps along that road. That picture clearly demonstrated that. There, but a hundred years ago, was a woman locked in a cultural regime more conservative than that of the Saudis. Nowadays the girls of the 'Stans' are more comparable to their sisters in Riga than Riyadh.

AWL221 Uzbek Woman in Tashkent

My favourite picture however was a gigantic one done by a fellow named Alexander Ivanov, (N.B. All the paintings in the Tretyakov are by Russian artists. Those by foreigners are largely in the Pushkin Gallery which was closed when we attempted to visit). It was called 'The Appearance of Christ to the People' (1837-57) and showed Jesus appearing to the masses after his time spent in the wilderness battling the Devil. This painting must have been remarkable since not only did I like it, but it also featured no place that I'd been to, nor was I that familiar with the story behind it. What struck me were the expressions on all the faces in the crowd; surprise, joy, horror, pain, and walking towards them, the Messiah, with an expression of pure serenity. It was enough to make anyone want to go to church, and so a little later on, we did just that.

AWL222 The Appearance of Christ to the People

Say 'The Kremlin' and you think 'power'. That vast mediaeval fortress by Red Square, from where many a mysterious leader, (and let's be honest, even today, how much do we actually know about Vladimir Putin?), has dictated the fate of the largest nation on Earth.

Inside that famous compound however, all is not what one might expect, for the chief attractions are not its war museums, corridors of power or even the armoury, but instead surprisingly, considering its role for eighty years as the heart of an atheist power, its cathedrals.

But of course, not that surprising. After all, the Kremlin started in the 1150s, was for centuries the headquarters of the not only Russia's temporal power, the State, but also her spiritual domain, the Orthodox Church. And after Constantinople fell to the infidel Turks in 1453, the Russians declared that their capital should become the Third Rome, (the first having fallen to the heathen Catholics in 1054 after the split of the two churches).[3] And today's Kremlin is the result, with a Patriarch's Palace and no fewer than three cathedrals, a church and a big bell tower. We wandered around these magnificent structures, marvelling at the finery, paintings and icons, before heading out into the open and taking silly photos by a big bell with a piece missing and a ridiculously large cannon. Which was all very nice and educational, and interesting, and whatever, except that I for one felt that I was missing out on something, and both the Sibling and Hazel agreed. Well actually, that's not true. I knew what it was and we weren't missing out on these things at all, if anything we'd seen far too many of them, but what I'm trying to say is that I was missing out on what exactly they were all about.


Walk into any Eastern Orthodox church and you'll be confronted by them. Lots of them. Gold-leafed Christs or Marys, Apostles or unknown saintly gents working miracles, healing the sick or just sat there in a holy fashion. If one item can symbolise Orthodoxy like the Rosary symbolises Catholicism, then it's the icon, and here in that branch of Christianity's Third Rome, they were out in force, not only in the churches and cathedrals, but also in the Tretyakov where I'd wandered uncomprehendingly through two galleries full of the things.

And yet, I am sorry to say that despite looking at so many, probably the finest on Earth, I still don't 'get' them. Perhaps it's because they're so noticeably absent in the English Church, I don't know, but I for one just can't see it. But what do you mean by 'it' you ask? Well, I just don't know. It's certainly not what they depict for sure. That bearded fellow there is obviously Christ, whilst the lady next to him is Mary. And the guy killing a dragon I can safely bet to be St. George, whilst this bearded, be-cloaked fellow, hmm... not too sure, let's look what it says... oh, he's a patriarch. No, what I don't get is the whole holy inspiring aspect of them. To me, they just look like rather one-dimensional paintings of holy fellows with a bit of gold stuck on for good measure, yet to countless millions, including scores of non-Orthodox, they raise the spirits to saintly levels. Why is this? Don't ask me. Why don't I get this holy rush? Again, don't ask. I'd like to appreciate icons, and I've tried to appreciate icons, but alas, it seems that I cannot and instead I find myself echoing the feelings of the Sibling uttered when we entered yet another House of God.

“What's inside here?” I asked he with the guidebook.

“Another load of gold Jesuses I should imagine,” came the reply.

AWL223 AWL224

AWL225 AWL226 Capering around the Kremlin

Yet Orthodoxy is not a faith that leaves me spiritually cold. Quite the contrary in fact. Walking along a street near to the Sculpture Park, we heard singing emerging from a small red church. I entered to find a Mass in full swing, with be-scarved babushkas and other Messiah-minded Muscovites standing solemnly in attendance, whilst a choir and priest sand the rites. I stood silently at the back, immersing myself in the chants, incantations and flickering candlelight, before emerging back out onto the sunlit street.

AWL227 The church where we attended Mass

But long days in the city can make one tired and dirty, even if that city is one of the Earth's finest, and so one day the Lowlander and I decided to go for a bath. And having sampled the Korean and Turkic variations of bathing this trip, was it not now only fitting to sample the famous Ruska Banya? And where better to do so, than in the equally-famous Sandunovskiye Baths, the capital's oldest and finest, where the cronies of both the Tsars and the People's Dictators once bathed.

Well, the idea sounded good to us anyway. I who, (as has been said several times already in this text), has long loved to bathe, and the Lowlander, who was fast developing a taste for it. Admittedly the entrance fee at twelve euros each was more than a little steep, but this was a one-off and these baths were meant to be something a little bit special.

And special they indeed were, more like works of art than places to clean oneself. The foyer and staircase were baroque excellence, whilst the changing rooms were like one had entered Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; an explosion of Gothic, with dark and finely-carved cubicles and a vaulted roof fit for an English stately home. And having shed our clothes, we went to deposit our valuables in the next room and lo! Where were we? But back in Uzbekistan, with colourful geometric patterns covering the walls and ceilings. It's strange to think about, but logical I suppose, that whilst the eccentric Georgians and Victorians were thinking of India whilst building Brighton Pavilion and other such edifices based on the styles of the Raj, the Russians looked to their own exotic colonies and Bukharan kitsch was obviously the 'in' thing in the days of the Romanovs.

But into the baths themselves, and quite a different heritage was revealed. No Asian traces here, like their churches, the Russians can trace their bathing habits back to the Romans, and the rooms of the Sandunovskiye clearly reflect this. Swimming around in a pool surrounded by doric columns and statues of heathen goddesses, one felt more in Rome than Russia. It was a scene straight out of an Asterix and Obelix comic book, even down to the fact that there was a big fat guy provided.

But great as the pool was for cooling off, one needed to get hot first, and for that there was a huge and hot sauna, peopled by bathers in pixie hats, (never worked out where they came from, the hats I mean), with bundles of birch rods with which they regularly beat themselves and wafted the hot air about. We entered sans hats but with birch bundles, and proceeded to heat up and hit ourselves; a bathing first for me and something that I highly recommend.

And so it was that we thoroughly enjoyed our final bathing experience of the trip, and as we dried off in the Gryffindor Common Room, (well, except for the fact that some of the inmates looked decidedly Slytherin), we declared the Russians to be as good at bathing as the Koreans, which in my mind, is high praise indeed.

We decided one day to head out of the town a little and aim for the city's greener suburbs. The centre of Moscow had been (surprisingly) almost Western European in its cleanliness and standards. Did that permeate out to the Muscovite outskirts though? What's more, out of town, there were two things that we really wanted to see.

The first was VDNKh, (Vystavka Dostizheny Naraodnogo Khozyaystva), or as it's officially known these days (though not commonly), the All-Russia Exhibition Centre.

'Why go to an exhibition centre though?' You ask. 'After all, there's not much to see at the NEC when there's no exhibition on, barring a load of empty halls.' Well, good point, though I'll have you know that I have actually visited the NEC when there was nothing on. However, the reason why we were heading VDNKh way was because the VDNKh is no ordinary exhibition centre.

AWL228 The entrance to VDNKh

Built in the fifties and sixties, VDNKh was the regime's attempt to show all and sundry just what a bloody good job they were doing. Two square kilometres in size, it consists of wide avenues, flanked by grandiose pavilions, each one highlighting the achievements of the USSR as a whole in a particular field, (e.g. Electrification, Space Travel), or the great advances achieved by each of the Republics in particular and nowhere else in the former USSR can the Soviet Dream be seen in so much glory, with glorious golden fountains, Classical or neo-Gothic pavilions and rockets thrusting towards the heavens. No NEC is this, more a twentieth century Versailles dedicated not to a king, but instead the collective power of the entire Soviet population. We walked around impressed, taking photos aplenty and observing the antics of a wedding party who were downing vodkas by a large kitschy fountain overlooked by the ever-sage V.I. Lenin.

AWL229 Wedding by the kitschy fountain

Yes indeed, a Soviet Exhibition Centre is something spectacular, but unfortunately without a Soviet Union, and with a Russia that has rather little to boast about these days, it is also somewhat without purpose. Admittedly, some of the new Republics had small displays in their respective pavilions, (alas, we never found the Turkmenistan one), but nowadays step inside most of those glorious colonnaded edifices, and you are faced not with any stunning technological advances, but instead an array of Korean videos, Japanese cameras and German toasters, for the sad fate of the VDNKh is to have become an elegant and architecturally-striking Russian equivalent of a car boot sale.


Oh well, I needed a camera, (I'd left my last one at Kolya's house by accident), so I acquired a cheap little Korean one in the Ukrainian SSR Pavilion, from a tiny store situated next to a display of Kievian folk dress sponsored by the Government of the Republic of Ukraine. And camera bought, we moved onto the Kosmos Pavilion where we enjoyed a cup of tea.


AWL232 AWL233 The Space Travel Monument at VDNKh

But there wasn't just an exhibition centre to see in this northern Moscow suburb. Oh no, we were here to see something else as well. As you well know by now, throughout the entire trip the Lowlander and I had developed a habit for getting as high as kites and whilst on our last excursion to the heavens, (at the Tashkent Tower), we'd been given a leaflet showing the relative heights of the world's tallest buildings.

And there in second place, only thirteen metres behind the CN Tower of Canada, was the Ostankino Tower of Moscow at an astonishing 540 metres! We had to go!

Luckily, this towering pinnacle of Soviet err.. TV achievement was but a short distance away, across the park of the same name. Unluckily however, it was shut that day to the general public, so after taking some photos, (with new Korean camera!) of us looking longingly at the old Ostankino, we boarded a trolleybus, (on which we couldn't work out how to pay for a ticket, so we didn't), and went back to the VDNKh metro station.

One of my favourite places in Moscow was a small shop tucked away in a sidestreet near to the Nikolai Gogol Museum. That shop was the ANGLIYA BRITISH BOOKSHOP and for an avid reader who’d been starved of a decent selection of English language reading material for over a month and a half, it was a gift from heaven. I sought it out the first time to try and locate a copy of Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin in my native tongue, (they didn’t have it), but returned afterwards to add to my already too-large pile of books, purchasing works by Bulgakov, Magnus Mills, Lawrence Durrell, Pasternak and Hardy amongst others, to keep me going throughout those long journeys across the Ukraine and Romania.

Next part: 3m: Moscow (III)

[1]Must point out here that that was said entirely in jest. Drugs are bad, incredibly so in fact and you must never even think of trying them kids.

[2] p.200 Lonely Planet: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. 2nd Edition, April 2000

[3]There are other cities claiming to be the Third Orthodox Rome, foremost amongst which is the ancient Bulgarian capital, Veliko Turnovo. However, after having visited that city, I can resolutely say that such a claim is more due to an overdose of Balkan pride and nationalism than anything historically concrete.

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